The genre of dark fantasy can be best described as horror stories with a supernatural elements such as magic, demons, vampires, ect. This definition is very important in differentiating dark fantasy from horror and from other sub-genres of fantasy as a story can have supernatural elements, including demons and vampires, and not be a horror story and a story may not include supernatural elements and still be a horror story. Though the term dark fantasy is a recent term for the sub-genre the material that fills it has existed since the dawn of man kind as history is filled with stories of men and women doing battle against the horrors of demons, monsters, and magic. Some of the major themes in dark fantasy include revenge from the grave, curses changing people into unholy creatures, and men creating horrors by playing God. No matter the theme of the stories they have one purpose and that is to give us the experience of fear while keeping us safe.
In The Old Nurse's Story the ghosts of the Lady Furnival's father, sister, and niece haunt the house after the father throws his eldest daughter and her child out of the house during a vicious winter storm which kills them and Lady Furnival does not try to help. But what creates the horror is that the ghosts actively try lure the innocent Miss Rosamond out into winter storms which would surely kill her by bewitching her with their cries. The ghosts of the sister and niece don't care who they harm in their pursuit of revenge so long as it causes pain to Lady Furnival. One only has to imagine what it would be like to be the child or the child's parent that falls victim to these calls to fear the utter helpless dread that would fill your heart. This type of indiscriminate attack by supernatural beings in pursuit of revenge is the foundation of many ghost stories.
In Dracula's Guest an Englishman journeys out on a carriage ride on Walpurgisnacht, when it is believed the devil raises the dead and they walk the Earth. Despite the many ominous warnings, including his coachman's pleas, he journeys to a village that was abandoned centuries earlier after it was discovered their dead were roaming at night. As the weather turns to a storm he seeks shelter in a graveyard and is confronted by the devil and the walking dead only to be saved by soldiers sent out to look for him by Dracula's orders. This story has the classic dark fantasy elements of foul weather and a adventurous youth wandering around on a night that is believed to be when the devil and the dead walk. The atmosphere and scenes of the story are oppressing to the spirit as lightening flashes and cold rain pours down in ruins of a village where the only buildings standing are mausoleums in the cemetery. It further adds to the atmosphere with ominous warnings from the local villagers and the howl of a wolf where there should be no wolves. The protagonist is forced to seek shelter in the only place available which happens to be the cemetery but is only revealed to him once inside. The protagonist is then forced to confront either monsters, demons, or the undead and is saved when it seems that he is doomed. This is a very classic plot and setting for Gothic dark fantasy such as Mary Shelley's “Frankenstein”, Bram Stoker's “Dracula” and Guest of Dracula, and John Polidori's “The Vampyre”. These settings of dark, cold, and barren places combined with the dead rising to prey upon humans touches are deepest and darkest fears sending shivers of horror and fright down our spines at the mere thought of such an incident happening to us.The Damned Thing inspires fear in us in another manner. The story is the testimony of a witness about the death of a local woodsman as well using the dead man's own journal to give us more information. In it a woodsman begins to notice animals howling in warning when it seems like nothing is there. He then begins to notice that stars, trees, and animals disappear for brief moments as if a solid object passed in front of them but nothing can be seen to cause it as everything else looks the same. The woodsman starts to become scared at realizing something is stalking him that is invisible other than these odd obstructions of small objects when it passes in front of him. When his friend comes for a visit they see the grass being moved and trapped down by some invisible force and the woodsman shoots at it as the force heads for him. His friend then watches as the woodsman wrestles with the invisible force and is killed by it. This story inspires the terror of having to fight something that is so completely unknown that we do not even know what it looks like and has no name but merely called “That Damned Thing.” Though this theme of fighting something that is invisible is not as common as other dark fantasy themes it can be found with perhaps the most known being the “Predator” movies but is also in some ghost stories where the ghost never reveals its appearance but merely its presence. The thought of being hunted by something that we cannot see or know is enough to strike terror into the hearts of many. It strikes us at one of our greatest fears and that is the fear of the unknown. Most would rather face demons, vampires, and monsters than to face something they cannot see and is completely unknown because at least there is some knowledge of how to protect themselves or defeat the known horrors.
Dark fantasy has been popular throughout history because it shows us our innermost fears making us feel alive while still being safe. It scares using creatures that are both monstrous and human at the same time, creatures that we can never know anything about including a name, the dead coming to get revenge of wrongs committed, or our own misery and death caused by our own selfish desires. It is separate from other horror because it uses the supernatural as the horror. It is separate from other fantasy as its purpose is to inspire fear and terror in us and not the spirit of adventure.
Bierce, Ambrose, The Damned Thing, originally printed in Tales From New York Town Topics, vol. 30, no. 23:December 7,1893, reprinted in The Prentice Hall Anthology of Science Fiction and Fantasy, edited by Roberts, Garyn, Prentice Hall, Saddle River, NJ:2003
Gaskell, Elizabeth, The Old Nurses Story, originally printed in Household Words:1852, reprinted in The Prentice Hall Anthology of Science Fiction and Fantasy, edited by Roberts, Garyn, Prentice Hall, Saddle River, NJ:2003
Stoker, Bram, Dracula's Guest, original manuscript for Dracula:1897, reprinted in The Prentice Hall Anthology of Science Fiction and Fantasy, edited by Roberts, Garyn, Prentice Hall, Saddle River, NJ:2003